What does it mean to do research?

Two of our student researchers on our Building Bristol Back Better project, Tahlia Jurkovic and Jamie Ellis, reflect on how they have found doing real world research.

We are undergraduate students who are part of a research project funded by the Bristol Model in collaboration with VOSCUR. Over the summer, six student researchers will be investigating the impact of the pandemic on Bristol’s voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector. Tahlia and Jamie are researching homelessness and food security, respectively. Over the coming weeks, their blogs will feature different aspects of their research.

On methods

Jamie: So, what about the methods? How are you doing the research and how have you found it so far?

Tahlia: Yeah, it is, I think, going well so far. I have two parts to my methodology and, right now, I’m just working on the interviews but I’m really hoping to do this camera project, where I give disposable cameras to homeless people or people who are recently housed and ask them to document their days through photographs. And so that’s in the pipeline and I think it would be so great to get pictures and have that as part of an interview. Having a look at daily habits gives a much stronger connection between the reader and the subject. I think it would be such a grounding thing to do with people and that when writing the report I think it will give organisations and Bristolians a perspective into the lives of the people they help.

Jamie: And how are the interviews going?

Tahlia: Yeah, the interviews are good! I’m using a semi-structured style, aiming to come across as quite conversational and, obviously, to try and reach out to people. Afterwards I’m going to be using semantic analysis to try and figure out the key themes. On this I was going to ask if you had read the Black South West Network report on COVID? It was good, and I think it’s a great thing for us to read because it’s a broad look at this sector but touches on a lot of the issues that we’re going to be noticing in our research.

Jamie: So, I suppose for future researchers who might read this and who might not have backgrounds in research, you were talking there about a style, or an approach I suppose to interviewing called ‘semi-structured’. When we’re matching up what we’re trying to do with our approach to doing it, we need to choose an approach. Do you want to just maybe explain a little bit about methods of interviewing?

Tahlia: Yeah, so I chose semi-structured interviews because I didn’t want to be super regimented in asking questions. I wanted to leave it open to some discussion. But I also did want to have an aim, and I wanted to have an objective rather than just going in and just asking questions off the top of my head. I did want to make sure that I touched on certain points that I thought were important, things like collaboration between organisations, council support and innovation and creativity in response. Sending them the questions in advance helps with that as well, because they have an idea of what they’re going to be asked, but they can also answer in whatever direction they want from there.

Jamie: That comes back to transparency and informed consent. Sending someone the questions before you ask them gives them both an opportunity to reflect and kind of see into the research process but also, it’s about keeping participants and respondents up to date with what we’re trying to do.

Tahlia: How’s about you? You’re using surveys about food poverty to begin with aren’t you?

Jamie: Yes. I’m doing an electronic survey with open ended questions and that means there’s no limit on what respondents can say, there’s no tick boxes to fill in or options to select. I’m sending that out to hopefully 30 to 40 participants, I’ve been quite lucky in hearing back from people almost as soon as I started. With a 50% response rate, I thought I could get a relatively meaningful dataset. I’m sending a survey with 10 questions which I’ve said roughly take 15 minutes which hopefully hits that sweet spot of gathering information without alienating people by making them type too much, which can be slightly more laborious than speaking to someone. From that I’m hoping to get an insight into Bristol’s thoughts and feelings, emotions and hopes, worries and criticism and that’s kind of the first part of my approach. For the second part I’m hoping to do photo interviews which make the testimonials feel very personal. So more in depth with a semi- to unstructured approach, just conversations with photos of them and where we are.

Tahlia: So we are both using photos then!

Jamie: I’m hoping to use the first stage to funnel responses into the second stage by selecting enthusiastic respondents with powerful responses. Trying to identify good rapport also seems important. Both of us are trying to use organisations to get to service users, the people that they benefit, and what I’m calling ‘service enablers’ like donors and funders. Service enablers could potentially be the most difficult part of it: a lot of people donate anonymously, and it, you know, can be very difficult to reach these people. I love your disposable camera idea; I think it’s fantastic. Which is why I think that photo essays are a good compromise which will make the report feel very personal.

Tahlia: Yeah, I think it’s good that we’ve both got this sort of two-tiered approach to our methodology because it’s clear that both of us are not just interested in getting information about the organisations but are interested in the stories behind experiences. We’re trying to express them in a way that’s accessible and inspiring for the people who are reading. The fact that we’re both trying to do that, I think, is really good, because within the limits on what we can do I think we are sort of pushing it, we have a lot to do, but I think we’re doing the right thing for what our objectives are.

Jamie: Yes, it is ambitious but manageable, I hope!